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Post-Roman invasions into Britain

The Germanic tribal names do not indicate where the invaders came from so much as the generic names given by historians, such as Bede, to the areas they settled.

The National Picture

Following the withdrawal of the Roman Legions from Britain by 410 AD, the former Roman province of Britannia lost regular contact with the rest of the Roman Empire and was no longer part of a money-using economy.  Quite rapidly, manufacture, marketing and trade ceased to be viable activities, and the institutions most dependant on them, the towns and villas, were abandoned.  

The province lost its central government and reverted to being ruled by many British tribes who no doubt resumed their pre-Roman infighting.  In the resulting mayhem the province became fair game for pirates of many nationalities. Consequently the resident Britons re-occupied and re-enforced many of their old Iron-age hillforts.

From the early 5th century AD increasing numbers of Germanic pirates invaded the eastern and south eastern coasts and rivers.  The invaders, who we tend to call the Saxons competed against each other; the British tribes no doubt continued their infighting, and the British and  invaders fought each other. The period must have seen the destruction of most of the vestiges of civilised Roman life in Britain.

From the 8th century the Vikings destroyed and occupied sites along the western and eastern seaboards. Finally Danish armies were able to occupy almost all of England. The resulting wars led, as fortunes flowed and ebbed, initially to a Wessex leader becoming king of all Britannia.  But by the early eleventh century, the Danish were in ascendancy and England had a Danish king.  Subsequently, when in turn the kingdom in Denmark faltered, power in England was handed back to a 'Saxon' king - Edward the Confessor, who had a Norman mother and had been raised and educated in Normandy. On Edward's death this led directly to a takeover by the Normans  (= Scandinavian 'northmen' who had settled in NW France)  which lasted for the next three hundred years. 

The Local Picture

The Cadbury Castle hillfort (near Yeovil) is thought to have been in re-occupied by the Britons soon after the Roman withdrawal. Archaeology has revealed a substantial 'Great Hall' (20 x 10 metres) and showed that the innermost Iron Age defences had been refortified, providing a defended site double the size of any other known fort of the period.  It therefore seems possible that it was the chief caer (castle or palace) of a major British ruler of this area and home to his royal family, his followers, servants and horses.

Artist: Mark Taylor

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tells us that Cerdic, the Saxon leader, landed in Southampton Water, defeated the local British king Natanleod and killed 5000 of his men, took the area of the New Forest and after five years of struggle against the native Britons carved out the kingdom of Wessex.

 

Approximate area of the main British (black text) and Saxon (blue text) kingdoms

Image: David Stokes

In 552, Cerdic's son, Cynric defeated the Britons at Sarum (old Salisbury). It was probably at this time that our area ceased to be ruled by the native British and became Saxon-governed.

For the next three hundred years there was no peace as the West Saxons fought rival Saxon kingdoms and were in constant battle with the native British, with Pict and Scot raiders and even with germanic Angles. 

In 597 AD, Pope Gregory I sent Augustine to England  to establish a hierarchy of Bishops and spread his influence throughout the land.  It was to take 37 years before Bishop Birinus, the first bishop of the West Saxons, established his diocese at Dorchester.

In 643, Cenwalh became king of the West-Saxons.  He built St Peters in Winchester which became the new seat of Bishop Birinus - replacing Dorchester.

The West Country British invaded Wessex in 658 but Cenwalh fought them at Peonnum (thought to be Penselwood near Mere) and pushed them back to the River Parret which runs through the Somerset levels.  The British were then effectively confined to south Somerset and the South West.

In 664, the Synod of Whitby decided that the future of England lay with the Roman rather than the Celtic church. This was a hugely important point that shaped our history for subsequently England became European-looking rather than remaining a Celtic island.

By 823 Wessex appears to have been the most powerful of the Saxon kingdoms. Although the Mercians invaded they were defeated in a bloody battle at Wilton.

Saxon peasant sunken-floored house

From about 3000-1500 years ago people lived in rectangular, often quite large huts, often with porches.  But during Saxon times this typical small hut, so low that a sunken floor was often dug, was common.

Image: Courtesy of the Highways Agency

In 1995 workmen repairing a wall in Barnes Place uncovered the skeleton of a young woman with two pieces of jewellery which conclusively dated her to the 7c.

The name 'Mere' probably comes from the old-English 'maera‘ which can mean either a lake  or a boundary.  There is no sign of a lake but Mere is at the meeting place of three Saxon shires -  Wiltshire, Dorset and Somerset. In which case, Mere would be a late Saxon settlement since the shires were not created until the 8th century.

 

The Scandinavian Invaders

Although Wessex was all powerful when it mounted great campaigns under its king, it was more susceptible to fast local attacks by pirates. The Danish army landed in 837 and defeated the men of Dorset on the Isle of Portland.

But then things began to go right for the Anglo-Saxons. In 845 the combined forces of Somerset and Dorset slaughtered the Danes at the mouth of the River Parret (Somerset levels). 

Later, Winchester was attacked from the sea by a large Danish force which was beaten back by the men of Hampshire and Berkshire. When King Ethelbert of Wessex died, his body was buried in Sherborne Abbey - did this indicate that the diocese at Winchester was too badly damaged to be useable? 

In 871 Alfred became king of Wessex. Within a month Alfred was unsuccessfully fighting the Danes at Wilton.  It was a very bad year; there were nine battles and no gain for the men of Wessex who decided to enter a peace treaty with the Danes.

Map showing the Danelaw

The extent of the Danelaw

Map: British Museum

878 began even worse for Wessex. The Danish army defeated Alfred at Chippenham and then rode all over Wessex expelling the people - the misery caused to the local people here can be imagined. King Alfred and a small band of men fled to the Isle of Athelney in the moors on the Somerset levels. Although Alfred had lost his army, with the help of the Somerset forces Alfred engineered a very successful comeback. He defeated the Danes at Edington near Westbury. Within a year the Danish agreed to withdraw to the Danelaw - an area north of a line from the Thames to the Mersey.

Alfred began to develop effective defences against the Danes.  He raised an army and between 878 to 892 constructed a series of fortified centres (burhs) across the South.  The burh for our area was the fortified hilltop town at Shaftesbury (bury = burh) which it is estimated had a strength of about 140 men.  Another at Wilton, at the junction of the Wylye and the Nadder, became one of the most important settlements in Wessex. Here there was a mint; the burgh may even have give its name to Wiltshire.

Shaftesbury grew into the most important local town and had its own mint. The very important and wealthy Benedictine nunnery of Shaftesbury was founded by Alfred the Great about the year 888; over which his daughter Elfgiva, Æthelgeofu or Algiva, presided as abbess. Successive Saxon kings each added to the lands of the nunnery.  We can tell that this area was threatened by the Danes since in 1001 Æthelred 'the unrede' allowed the nuns to temporary relocate to the monastery of Bradford-upon-Avon where were kept the relics of the Blessed Martyr (King Edward) and other saints. The Danish king of England, Knute died at the Shaftesbury nunnery in 1035.

In about 910 Edward included London into his territory and thus the capital of England moved from our area (Winchester) to London. 

By about 1000 AD, Danish invaders under King Sweyne, were successfully attacking England. In 1003 they landed at Exeter and then moved into Wiltshire where they plundered and burnt the burh at Wilton. The Wilton mint was moved to more secure Old Sarum hillfort which the Danes then attacked.

By 1006 the Danes were able to plunder all of inland southern England without interference. The people of Winchester, relatively safe in their walled town, watched with horror as the Danes went by carrying meat and plunder back to their ships 50 miles away.  This area would have been very badly affected since the Chronicle tells us "they had terribly marked each shire in Wessex with fire and devastation". 

By 1015 the Danish King Knute had overrun much of Dorset, Wiltshire and Somerset.

 

In 1016, King Edmund fought the Danes at 'Pen (Penselwood?) near Gillingham' and at Sherston (north Wiltshire).  These and a series of other battles were indecisive but did lead to a truce with the Danes agreeing to withdraw again to the Danelaw. Later in the year Edmund died and Knute (Canute) proclaimed himself king of all England. He personally ruled Wessex. Knute died in 1035 at Shaftesbury and was buried at Winchester.

The local area is well filled with villages having Saxon names. Place names ending in 'bury', 'ham', 'ton',  'ley' and 'ing' are of Saxon period origin; e.g. Burton, Bourton, Stourton, Gillingham, Silton, Milton, Kilmington, Brewham, Bonham, Feltham and Shaftesbury but apparently no 'ley's or 'ing's.

 

An execution site found in 2009 near Weymouth. Dental enamel analysis showed that the victims came from a land to the north of Britain.  The interpretation is that this is where a band of 51 defeated Norsemen were ritually decapitated by the Saxons. Some skulls had been removed - displayed on stakes? They were all young men - barely in their twenties. 

Carbon dating showed they were buried between 910 and 1030AD. The location is a typical place for a Saxon execution site - on a main road and a parish boundary and close to prehistoric barrows.

Photo: Oxford Archaeology


The annual collection of the Vikings' ransom required a sophisticated system of tax collecting.  When the Normans looked across the channel towards England they saw not just a thriving wealthy country but an efficient tax harvesting system that could deliver that wealth to them.  So when in 1066 Edward the Confessor died, William the Norman found no shortage of French barons willing to help him contest the throne by force. 

And so the efficiently-organised, and largely peaceful country unwittingly created its own destruction; the Saxon era came to a very sudden and violent end.  In its place a warrior ruling class and a heavy feudal system.


Links:-

Some of the images on this page have been reproduced from the excellent web site for Anglo-Saxon England at www.anglo-saxons.net

Good overview of Saxon life on http://www.angelcynn.org.uk/

Saxon illustrations and ideas at http://www.regia.org/village.htm

Saxon education and re-enactment at http://www.regia.org/regmemb.htm